Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Social Welfare Offices.

48.

asked the Minister for Social Welfare if he is aware of the hardship imposed on social welfare applicants by the closing down of local social welfare offices in many parts of the country; and what steps he intends to take to alleviate this hardship.

I am not aware that the closing down of some of the local agency offices of my Department has imposed any hardship on social welfare applicants in the areas concerned.

When social welfare benefits do not turn up, the applicants have to write to Dublin. Would the Minister not consider it far easier if the ordinary social welfare applicant could walk into an office and discuss his case? Does the Minister not accept the fact that the closing down of these offices is imposing hardship on social welfare applicants?

This is not a general complaint at all. Many reasons have been put forward for the retention of the agency system but expedition in payment is not one of them. In my opinion, the direct system of payment is much more prompt.

What is an applicant to do in the event of social welfare benefits not turning up?

He can go to the local Labour TD.

The agent could do nothing for him other than what can now be done.

What assistance is available to applicants for sickness benefit in towns where there are employment exchanges?

The managers and branch managers of the exchanges are always very helpful.

I appreciate that. Are there any definite regulations with regard to the assistance that should be given to the applicants?

No. Managers and branch managers can give them information as to the benefits.

Does the Minister seriously suggest that the presence of a social welfare officer in a remote area of West Donegal, or North Monaghan, or West Mayo is not of assistance to the local people? If such people are not getting the benefits to which they are entitled they can go into the office and ask the official to fill up application forms for them. Sometimes such applicants are not able to write. The officer may be able to find out what is troubling an applicant. He could then fill up the appropriate application form and perhaps console the applicant in his distress. Such an officer performs a useful function and his worth should be weighed against the administrative advantage of reducing these services for the purposes of technocratic officers.

The question refers to the agency system which was taken over from the former National Health Insurance. These officers still continue to perform services. For the past ten years or so there has been a regulation that, when such an officer retires or dies, no further appointment shall be made. These officers act as agents for our Department. I have mentioned in the House before that they do some useful work. Some of them are much better than others; but it may be taken that, on the whole, they do not expedite payments in any way, nor do they console people as the Deputy suggests.